Friday, June 27, 2003

September 11 and Australian theatre

With its much-shorter lead-time than film, the theatre should be a fertile place for “big picture” representations of September 11, right now. Added to twenty months of gestation time, Australian’s distance from and yet (one-way) familiarity to NYC – theatre central – makes us as good a laboratory as any for the task. And “the task”, as I see it, is both simple and elusive – it is the art of moving on.

From what I read, cultural NYC has not “moved on” an iota. This doesn’t particularly surprise me. Artists (in the loose sense of the word) have excellent powers of premonition (again in the loose sense), and September 11 hit them/us for six. In NYC, cultural centre of the world since the lean post-WW1 years in Europe, the natural reaction was to flee – underground. As with so many other terms misappropriated by the Generation of ’68, “underground art” needs a thorough cleaning to now be actually understood. Using the term “hedonistic” in lieu of “underground” may be an easier route to conveying what I actually mean – but hedonism also casually slips into meaning something merely comfortable and idle. Hence, I’ll give up the search for a single-word describer now, and turn to my last resort; a phrase straight out of my Melbourne Uni English department mid-eighties indoctrination in postmodernity: Today’s cultural NYC is ferociously self-reflexive.

There – said it (PoMo had to come in handy one day). And, in case you’re completely lost, “ferociously self-reflexive” is generally a Bad Thing in art. All the more so because it combines Fear and Productivity, which by themselves are excellent qualities for art, but which, in combination, drown each other out.

So back to Australian theatre. With its NYC cultural godparent and template looking any which way but outside or up, should Oz dramatists take on the Fear – as in, put the Fear on stage, whether or not they also live with it in their own lives?

Two recent plays*, both about the post September 11 world seen through Australian eyes, depict authoritarian dystopias from the near-future. The Fear, then, is neatly parcelled up into, and contained within, a governmental over-reaction to Islamofascist terrorism. What troubled me most about these plays was their ambiguous, randomly-timed humour; a tone which I doubt was deliberate. By sitting evasively somewhere between bourgeois escapism and serious commentary, and choosing a stock-standard format (Allegorical Dystopia 101), neither play gave me as much as a wink of insight at my September 11. And the curse and problem** of being an artist these days is that, until we see it objectified naked and luminous in front of us, we can’t ever put it behind us.

So don’t look at me – September 11 and my bottom-drawer are the same thing for me, too: overflowing and untidy-uppable; the place my dreams go to visit when I am awake.

* “Babel Towers” and “Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America”

** On September 10, it was a boon and a gift

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